I left off last week at the point where Commodore Harwood, with his small naval force, sailed toward Africa on the route the Nazi battleship Graf Spee would take to reach the mouth of the River Plate. Harwood, with his 8-inch cruiser HMS Exeter and the 6-inch cruisers Ajax and Achilles, meant to meet the 11-inch guns of the heavily armored Graf Spee head on. He was determined to end a trail of sunken British merchant ships or die in the attempt.
Harwood’s chances were small at best. The 11-inch guns of the Graf Spee could hurl a solid shell weighing 650 pounds over 22 miles, piercing the armor of the Exeter, Harwood’s largest ship, and sinking her while her 8-inch shells fell five miles short of the Spee. As for the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, the short range of their 6-inch guns left them completely outgunned.
History is replete with tales of brave captains who charged in with guns blazing in hopes of sinking a larger ship. The ocean bottoms are lined with vessels lost in such vain attempts, and the list of men who went down with those vessels would fill a book.
The only chance Harwood had was to somehow close with the Graf Spee before it leveled its 11-inch guns from long range. But as he steamed into the path of the oncoming battleship he must have known the best he could expect before his ships went down was to either engage the Spee long enough to allow larger British vessels to arrive, or to damage her and slow her down.
It is a very brave man who steams full speed ahead toward such a fate, and yet that is exactly what Commodore Harwood did. And it was that very act, that courageous decision to risk all on direct action, which set the stage for what was about to happen.
At 6.14 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 12, 1939, Commodore Hardwood’s small fighting force spotted smoke to the east. Harwood immediately ordered the Exeter to turn directly toward it while he, in the smaller Ajax, together with the Achilles, continued on in the direction they were sailing, their purpose being to spread the fire of the Graf Spee as much as possible.
Incredibly, Commodore Harwood’s courageous decision to charge directly into the jaws of death had paid off. At the moment he and Captain Langsdorff sighted each other they were less than two miles apart. The importance of the greater range of the 11-inch guns of the Graf Spee’s was nullified, although their far greater hitting power was not. Furthermore, the combined speeds of the Exeter and the Graf Spee added up to an incredible 50 miles an hour, bringing them nearer to each other each second and giving the smaller ships a fighting chance.
And so began the Battle of the River Plate, an appropriate name, since if you think of the four ships involved as steaming across an immense oceanic baseball field the action becomes as easy to visualize as it was deadly.
As the battle opened, the Exeter was crossing home plate, the Spee was steaming across second base directly toward her, and the Ajax and Achilles were churning water toward first base.
At 6.20 a.m. at a range of 19,400 yards the Exeter opened fire. Its very first salvo struck the Spee, but did no visible damage. Just three minutes later the Spee opened fire. Instantly the Exeter took a hit which knocked out one of her turrets, struck the bridge, killed or wounded nearly everyone there, destroyed her communications, and put the Exeter out of control.
Having reached first base, the Ajax and Achilles hurled shell after shell at the Spee. Having disabled the Exeter, which still managed a desultory fire, Spee turned her main guns on the smaller cruisers, hitting them. But with the three enemy ships lying so close, and all three of them firing at once, matters became too hot for the battleship. She made smoke and turned away.
The Ajax and Achilles followed, but as the Spee turned, it again leveled its guns on the Exeter. All forward guns of the Exeter were out of commission.
She was burning amidships and had a heavy list. A few minutes later she was knocked out of the fight, still afloat, but no longer able to fire her guns. The Spee then turned its batteries on the smaller ships. Two turrets on the Ajax were knocked out and the Achilles was badly damaged.
After 1 hour and 20 minutes the unequal battle was over, but the Spee too was heavily damaged and ran for Montevideo. Low on ammunition, the Ajax and Achilles followed her until she entered the neutral Uruguayan harbor at midnight.
Captain Langsdorff soon found he could not repair the Spee in the time allowed in a neutral port and would have to sail with his ship badly damaged.
Meanwhile, another 8-inch cruiser, the Columbine, joined the Ajax and Achilles and the British tried a huge hoax, sending false radio messages which convinced both Langsdorff and Berlin that the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battle cruiser Renown, and other powerful ships sat waiting outside the harbor.
Berlin ordered Langsdorff to steam out on a suicide mission, but he knew it meant not just the loss of his ship and his own life, but the needless loss of his crew of over 700 men. It was then he proved to the world he was made of finer stuff than those who ran Germany. He freed 62 British merchant seamen held captive on his ship, scuttled the Graf Spee at the mouth of the River Plate, went ashore with his crew, put his papers in order, and sent a telegram to Berlin. It said, “I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of our flag. I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the battleship Graf Spee.” And then he shot himself.
After his death it was learned that although he had sunk many merchant ships, not a life was lost in these sinkings. He had first taken their crews aboard his ship, treated them with great kindness and respect, and transferred them to a transport, thus saving the lives of all 365 merchant seamen in the ships he sank.
Enemy or no enemy, it is hard not to take pride in the fact that brave men like Captain Hans Langsdorff sail the oceans.
A footnote: Even though Langsdorff was fooled by false radio messages, the Spee was doomed. She could not have escaped. Had she sailed, she would have been shadowed until sunk by larger ships.